Indonesian in Australia

Look who’s talking: Indonesian in Australia

Recently, Indonesian language has begun to make an appearance in Australian popular media. There is evidence too that, after years of decline, student interest in Indonesian language and studying in Indonesia is on the rise.

International comparisons suggest that popular culture and language learning may be connected. Bollywood cinema has spread Hindi through India more successfully than the shambolic national language policy. Some argued that the growth of interest in Japanese in the 1980s was fuelled by the global rise of manga comics.

More recently, Korean pop music and video games have driven interest in Korean language in Australia.

Rhonda and Ketut

Over the past three years, one of Australia’s largest insurance companies, AAMI, has run a series of ads featuring an average Australian woman, Rhonda, who travels to Bali and falls for handsome Ketut.

The ads captured Australia’s love affair with Bali. More broadly, they tapped into Australia’s affection for Indonesia and Indonesians living in Australia.

In the final episode, to Ketut’s declaration of love in Indonesian, Rhonda responds in a broad Australian accent: “saya cinta kamu” (“you too”). The episode underlines a phrase that Australian girls learn on a visit to Bali – “saya cinta kamu” (I love you) – but shows too that Rhonda doesn’t quite know what the words mean.

As far as we can tell, this was the first time that Indonesian has been used in an Australian television ad. These ads seemed to simultaneously “normalise” Bali holidays and the use of Indonesian language and cross-cultural miscommunication as part of the everyday experience of Australians.
Indonesian featured in Australian TV series

In addition to the Rhonda and Ketut ads, the successful ABC series Rake also presented characters speaking Indonesian.

In episode seven of series three, broadcast in March this year, main character Cleaver Greene’s ex-wife Wendy suffers an emotional shock and loses her ability to speak English.

Propelled by memories of “Seminyak years ago”, whenever the ex-hippy opens her mouth, words come out in fluent Indonesian, albeit with a rather cute Australian accent. The series' creators used subtitles for Wendy’s Indonesian until they introduced the daughter of Wendy’s therapist as her interpreter in episode eight.

The ethnicity of the therapist is not clear in the series. The daughter is Indonesian-looking and speaks fluent English with an Australian accent.

By episode eight, Wendy has become quite a celebrity in Indonesia. The Indonesian media send film crews to interview her, paying $50,000 for the privilege. Cleaver is perplexed. “There’s 250 million people there speaking [it] – why are they getting excited about one more?” he grumbles.

It is a somewhat ridiculous sub-plot, though not entirely out of character with the inanity of the series. Wendy loses her inexplicable Indonesian ability when her emotional turmoil is resolved and she reverts to speaking English.

We never learn whether she had previously learnt or spoken Indonesian, or whether she ever spoke it again. But for a moment in the fantasy of Australian television, Indonesian is spoken with consummate ease by a white middle-aged Australian mum.


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